The silver pole squeaks between her pale, toned thighs as she lifts her 110-pound frame high into the club's rafters. Her strawberry blond hair tumbles loosely over her blue tie-dyed string bikini to her thin waist. The pumping music goads, "Party like a rock star," and her eyes roam into the flashing red and blue lights. She doesn't look at the crowd.
From her perch, she flings off the bikini top, which lands in a limp heap onstage. Right ankle looping the pole, her body dangles upside down like a Raggedy Ann doll, to which she bears some resemblance. Sliding down, she closes her act in a handstand before flipping upright to saunter offstage.
It is an otherwise drab Wednesday afternoon in June. The 23-year-old dancer accompanies the free buffet at the Pink Pony, a strip joint in a Doral warehouse on an industrial block where you can also find good deals on marble.
Her pole tricks are worth the visit, even if the shriveled strip steak is not. When the music stops, she looks at me. Her eyebrows rise as if to say, "What did you think?" I smile and silently clap, impressed by the acrobatic mastery of this day shift dancer, who calls herself Kamren.
"I'll be back," she mouths before approaching each of the seven men in the audience, some wearing visors, some in button-down dress shirts, all suddenly immersed in their beers and averting their eyes from her black-gartered hips as she swings them for tips. She returns to a chair across from me and sighs.
Kamren arrived on a Greyhound bus two weeks ago. The only makeup on her face is a smudge of mascara that has melted under her eyes. "Can I have a dollar? is the most annoying part for a stripper," she laments. "Even more annoying is when they turn you down."
The Pink Pony is among a bevy of Miami strip clubs open at noon. While some poor chumps swing by the Wendy's drive-through, their friskier frugal counterparts are wise to the cheap eats and eyefuls offered at these clubs. Where there's hunger, someone is bound to feed it.
The dancers served up with the buffets include mothers, students, and women striving for some semblance of a normal life in a hustler's profession, which many hide from their families. Many prefer the less drunk, less grabby clientele that frequents clubs when the sun is still high. Others like the practicality: Raising children, fetching the dry cleaning, and picking up groceries is easier when you're not disrobing at night.
"It's just like any job," says Heaven, a 24-year-old dancer at Miami Gardens' Tootsies Cabaret, whose mouth is glazed in lipgloss. She smells like bubblegum.
Day strippers don't like to be thought of as B-team dancers. Kamren, for one, says she feels unappreciated. "I wish more people would come and watch me during the day, because I do actually put on a show."
I compliment her pole tricks, adding, "I wanted to clap, but I wasn't sure of strip club etiquette."
"You could have. Some people do applaud," she assures, her eyes downcast as she leans against the table, making me wish I had.
The thought of entering the Magic City's nude dancing world by myself made me squeamish. I'm not one of those cool girlfriends who escorts her man to clubs. I was raised Lutheran. I needed a warmup, a place that felt like home — a corn-hemmed nook of 18,000 in Illinois, where the local strip joint, the Silver Slipper Saloon, was conveniently situated just off I-80 and pandered to truckers and union laborers.
Driving along I-75 in North Florida this past May, my fiancé and I spotted signs for a joint offering trucker discounts, and I knew I'd found the place. At Café Risqué, patrons can ogle naked ladies over waffles and eggs 24 hours a day. (And, in a cruel twist, they must do so completely sober. Café Risqué doesn't serve booze because a local ordinance bans the combination of liquor and total nudity, according to Donna Smith, the café's general manager.)
My fiancé could not contain his enthusiasm, shouting out each billboard for the club while we were en route.
"We Bare All!"
We pulled into wee Micanopy, about 20 minutes from Gainesville, on a sunny Memorial Day afternoon. An ancient mall competes with Café Risqué — a white and blue building that looks like an old Arby's — as the best thing going in town.
A ruddy potbellied man dressed in black greeted us at the door.
"Locals, truckers, or just passing through?"
"Uh ... just passing through."
The door opened to a room lit like a blue and pink neon Wal-Mart. A sign near the door pointed to the right: "Truckers Showers."
The six dancers outnumbered the four homely customers facing the narrow, mirrored stage. Three women sat and chatted with the thin audience while the other three danced. A stringy-haired blond, who looked about 16 years old, swayed, her small breasts lolling haphazardly. An older brunette with a lumpy midriff and a dimpled behind gyrated in front of no one.
There was only one dancer who looked as if she could one day graduate from Café Risqué. Her auburn hair was pulled into flowing pigtails, and she boasted the curves of a pin-up girl. To the strains of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," she pushed her pelvis into the face of a man with a shaved head. He sat fixated and frozen.
When the song ended, he told her: "You look like the girl from The Exorcist," an association between strippers and adolescent girls that didn't bode well for the dancer, or society at large.
"What?" she giggled.
Meanwhile, the redhead slipped on her clothes. She puckered her full lips in the mirror and squeezed her breasts together before nestling up to a customer sporting a trucker hat.
The next dancer, who had sleek black hair and wore an open-backed evening dress, called for Windex from the kitchen to erase the body smears of her predecessor. The jukebox stopped, and the room careened into awkward silence. After a few bites of unappetizing eight-dollar teriyaki chicken wings, my fiancé shoved his chair from the table.
"Ready?" he asked.
A few days later, back in Miami, I decided to start my solo excursion into the strip world at the bottom: i.e., anywhere near Miami International Airport, the sort of end-of-the-road place where it's easy to find anonymity and escape.
Club Pink Pussycat is dead shortly after noon on the last Wednesday in May. The fading Pepto-dismal pink building on NW 36th Street is wedged under the Airport Expressway at Okeechobee Road, in the shadows of Miami Jai-Alai.
There is one man inside the cavernous club. He wears a flattop and glasses and holds a beer in his hand. A seasoned woman with scraggly yellow hair and gold bangles glares from behind the bar. No one is naked. For that, I am glad.
"A Diet Coke, please?" I order ridiculously.
"You can't be here," she says, hands on hips.
"Really? Why not?"
"Because we have our own girls working here."
"Oh, I'm not working. I'm just passing through," I say, employing the only phrase in my strip club vocabulary.
"I'm sorry. You can't stay," she says. "Sometimes a guy brings in a girl and offers to other guys: 'Oh you can have her for $20, $100.' And maybe you are his wife. And you go all crazy and you break a bottle on his head."
I look to the flattopped man, who is sipping quietly. He shrugs as if to say, "You never know."
"Does that happen?"
"No, not really," the barkeep mumbles, eyes pointing to the door.
Outside, a man in broad aviator shades grunts as he hands over the keys to my Honda Civic, valet-parked five steps away.
My next stop is Bottoms Up Lounge on Calle Ocho, near SW 57th Avenue. It's a tiny dive bar with pink metal siding and the smell of stale cigarettes that hits you from the sidewalk. Lou, a balding manager with a phone-sex voice and a face to match, also refuses me.
In seconds I transform from strip club virgin to activist. Don't single women have just as much right to enjoy a quick bite over female genitalia? Even though the clubs are private, I contact the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. They don't see the travesty. "We are not the appropriate organization to comment on this," a spokesman says.
A few hours after getting kicked out, I easily recruit a male co-worker to escort me to the Pink Pussycat. The waitress doesn't welcome me back when my colleague and I order a pair of Bud Lights.
"Do you want a glass?" she asks, which I smugly accept as her unspoken apology.
Four men huddle near the stage, clutching dollar bills and yelling like there's a cockfight at their feet. From the bar, I see flashes of intertwined legs. I fear going closer. Soon, Sasha approaches. The dancer looks to be in her forties, with an unfortunate set of crow's feet and bony fingers she knits into her black fishnet top. She leans toward me and jiggles.
"I like women," she says, looking at me with clearly feigned lust.
She nudges my knees apart with a hand. I cackle nervously and close them.
"I'm studying theology," she tells us.
"Oh really? That's great," I say, happy to have underestimated her. "Do you want to be a pastor?"
"No, not a pastor."
"Where do you study?"
"From a book."
She motions for me to move my turquoise blue bag, which has been locked over my lap like a chastity belt. I shake my head no. We end up buying her $43 worth of champagne. She presses my co-worker to buy me a lap dance. We don't budge. Then she asks if we're cops.
I realize I will never pass for a strip club connoisseur. Her drugstore perfume clings to me when I leave. Hours and multiple handwashes later, I still smell like an aging stripper.
A woman with a silky black bob, Snow White skin, and rouged lips swings her listless hips to AC/DC's "Back in Black" on the main stage at Showgirls, a boxy club tucked off South Dixie Highway in Cutler Bay, near a Meineke shop.
She gnaws her gum like a cud. Squatting to the right, knees spread wide, she rests longingly against a pole. Tables ring the purple-hued space as if it's a theater in the round.
The woman turns to the front row, but her eyes hover above the eager audience of six men, gazing to an imaginary horizon. She releases her white bikini top. Her nipples are perky; her expression is not.
"These girls don't dance," Sara Lee, a buxom woman with long auburn hair and sharp green eyes, says as she critiques the bored dancer during the lunch shift. She leans against the club's main bar and has a clear view of the reception area, where she works.
Showgirls sits among big-box stores, not far from Florida's Turnpike and Chuck E. Cheese's, and offers free lunch from noon to 2 p.m. The club serves everything from cheese sticks to fish sandwiches to caesar salad.
"God, I wish they would put me onstage," continues Sara Lee, who is 34 years old. "I'd show those girls. I was never just like, 'Hey, look at this.' I very rarely sat with my legs open and fingered myself, like those girls do."
In late September, Sara Lee, a career day dancer, was forced into retirement after surgery. She'd torn a ligament in her left knee during an onstage move 15 years ago, and it had never healed properly. "I'm still getting over the loss of my career," she says.
Sara Lee returned to the club as a hostess. Soft after gaining a few pounds since her strutting days ended, she exudes an earthy femininity. She believes men come to clubs in search of a type of woman who is nearing extinction.
"There are no good female role models these days. You have to either be masculine, like Hillary Clinton, or Marilyn Monroe — a sex symbol. Where are the Dagny Taggarts?" she says, referring to the rational yet passionate heroine of Ayn Rand's 1957 book Atlas Shrugged, one of her favorites. "I'm not saying women should put on aprons or stop burning our bras, but there is something sweet about a feminine woman."
Indeed, academic research bears out her theories. College of the Atlantic anthropology professor Katherine Frank has been studying the adult entertainment industry for years. The attractive blond academic with a Duke Ph.D. danced nude at clubs for research. In a 2003 Journal of Sex Research article drawn from 30 interviews with male customers, Frank reported,"Some men ... explicitly stated a desire to interact with women who were not 'feminist' and who still wanted to interact with men in 'more traditional' ways." In a club, they could relax and escape from the "rules" of the postfeminist world.
Sara Lee began dancing at Club Paradise in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a year after going into labor in her high school social studies class at age 17. Her parents made her quit work, but at age 18, she returned.
"I was hooked," she says. "All these guys think you're a goddess and dump money on you. I felt like I was living large with a new car and all that crap from Rent-A-Center."
A few years later, in her early twenties, she was sitting on a flat-bed truck in Middletown, New York, when she was approached by a man whose shaggy blond hair crept from beneath his black cowboy hat. He was a traveling carnival worker. She joined the show. They married in February 1998. Her son, Kyle, went with her. (Now age 17, Kyle has known about his mother's job for three years.)
Sara Lee earned a role as Metamorphosis Girl. She'd buy leopard prints from Jo-Ann Fabrics, fray them a bit, and tie them around her body. A mirror trick would turn her head into a ferocious gorilla or a drooling fly. She stripped during the day at clubs along the way and worked the carnival at night.
But her husband got hooked on crack, and she caught him cheating with other women — and men. They separated around 2000. She ended up in Florida City, where she had stopped during a break from the carnival. She soon found a job at Playpen South, just a few miles north, and as a breakup present to herself, got her boobs done.
"I'll show you," she says, eagerly lifting her black dress shirt and pinching her 40Ds like teats. "Before, they were like fried eggs. I filled them up to their former glory."
She sees the daytime stripper as an antidote to infidelity. The day clients, she says, are the "good guys," married professionals with kids. "A lot of guys don't want to cheat on their wives, so they sit here and drink a beer and watch some boobies bounce up and down," she explains. "Sure, guys want to see a perfect-looking body, but what's more important is a girl who will listen."
A few minutes later, a slight, gray-haired, bespectacled man approaches the reception area to smooch Sara Lee on the lips. "Bye, sweetheart," she whispers in a saccharine tone. "I'll see you every time I close my eyes."
Once he leaves, her voice reverts to normal. "They come here for the fantasy to have that girl that says yes and laughs at their jokes and doesn't complain about little annoying habits."
On days she's not up to being sweet to her boyfriend, she tells him: "Go get a fucking lap dance."
After giving a tour of Showgirls, Sara Lee introduces me to two of the club's day strippers: Athena (who requested her stage name be changed) and Extazy.
Like a proper lady, Athena primly spreads a white cloth napkin on a black barstool before sitting. She is topless and doesn't bother to replace her black and white bikini. The slender 22-year-old smoothes her long, ramrod-straight brown hair. She releases the bills crumpled in her fist and counts them: 10 bucks. As we talk, the spindly legs of a flat-chested woman stalk by on the bar.
"I feel so guilty," Athena says of stripping when I tell her I'm working on a story for New Times. (I had given up trying to pass as a customer.) "Do you guys have any jobs?"
She lives with her mother, a nurse, who thinks Athena works at Ann Taylor at The Falls shopping mall in Palmetto Bay. Athena wants to be a teacher. Like other strippers I met, she claims to be a student at Miami Dade College, which seems to be furthering the educational goals of half the daytime strippers in the area.
"Ever since I've got saved, I've felt out of place," she says, wringing her hands in her lap and looking around. "It's sinful. I want to get out of here. I'm a Christian."
Athena's disaffection came after she dropped some bad Ecstasy. She made a promise to God: She would go to church if He let her live. The day before our meeting, she had attended a Bible study. She told the group she used to be a stripper, too embarrassed to admit she hadn't quit. They prayed over her and she burst into tears.
She pledged not to return to Showgirls, but her checking account is overdrawn. It's the next day and here she is. She pulls out her cell phone to show me photos of herself, as if to prove there's more to her than a topless girl. "See, I have glasses — like yours."
Athena's friend, Extazy, has just turned 20. Petite and curvy with shoulder-length ringlets and a little girl's laugh, she is Hawaiian, but patrons think she's Latina. When she doesn't respond to Spanish, the mean ones get mad and call her a whore.
Both women started out working nights, but they prefer days, when the clientele is older, tamer, and richer. "Older men are more willing to spend," Extazy says. "Though sometimes they're perverted. I can tell they're like child molesters."
"They are more respectful," Athena chimes in. "Young guys like to see free you-know-what."
They share stories of backsides bitten, breasts squeezed, indecent proposals, and dollar bills crammed in places nobody would want them. Like other dancers, they don't exactly have a glowing image of their male customers — especially the ones who give them only a single dollar.
The pair asserts the day shift can bring in just as much money as the nighttime. Athena hit her record, around $700, on a Sunday afternoon, a good shift. "They go to church; then they get bored," she explains.
Typically the dancers earn a few hundred dollars each day. (Strippers at higher-end clubs estimate they earn $1,000 on a good day shift and don't like to leave without at least $500.)
Both pledge they're on their way to quitting. "I feel like it's degrading," Athena says. "It's good money, but I don't need it anymore. I don't think any women should be doing this."
Extazy, who dabbles in painting portraits and landscapes, aspires to work in a gallery. "I just want to do it and move on with my life."
About a week later, Athena sends me a text-message update: "STILL LOOKIN FOR A JOB."
I text back: "R u at showgirls in the meantime?"
":( yeah I wanna stop"
"its hard - ebody has to pay bills"
"Yeah but i rather work a normal job"
Two days later, she forwards an image of Christ with the message that the picture is sacred. But faith alone doesn't pay the bills.
Rain seems to spit, just to rub in the grayness of this Thursday afternoon in June on a soulless swath of downtown NE 11th Street. White, purple, and gold balloons bob outside Gold Rush, lending the place the melancholy air of a lousy garage sale.
Gold Rush holds the local distinction of being the only club open 24 hours a day. To customers, it's also known as a place where they don't have to pay "tolls"; girls don't ask for a dollar after they dance.
Inside, a neon green sign flashes "All U Can Eat," under which a free buffet offers chicken parmigiana with salad and lentil soup. On Fridays, Al the cook hauls out a beef carving station.
Near a long stage, three men hover like bees around a blond with a high ponytail that loops into spirals. She wears a rose-colored see-through lace top and ruffled panties, and introduces herself as "one of the Barbies." (Apparently, at Gold Rush, there are two.) Sparkles dust her eyelids.
The gang has been partying since the night before. "We don't want to go home," says the most lucid of the bunch, a clean-cut 29-year-old Cuban in a preppy jersey shirt. "I call this area the Bermuda Triangle. You get lost here."
When I ask him his name, he says, "You can call me Giovanni. The good thing about being in a strip club is you don't have to use your real name."
Giovanni boasts he's been out since around 8 p.m. the night before. He tells me he worked in real estate but is looking to expand his business into bail bonds ("bad economy, more crime on the street," he explains). After a trip to Solid Gold, the storied gentlemen's club in North Miami Beach, he returned to Gold Rush around 5:30 a.m.
Now, 16 hours later, he claims to have spent $2,000 and the better part of a day "doing some cocaine, drinking a lot, and smoking a lot."
The eldest member of the nocturnal trio is a native New Yorker, who says he's 40, though his wrinkles tell another story. He swoops in, inches from my nose. "Where are you from?" he slurs.
"Near Chicago," I reply. "Why do you like it here?"
"I like music," he says. "I like fun. I like pretty girls, but I'm partial to girls from Chicago. You're so cool; I can warm you up."
Thanks to the horror stories from Extazy and Athena, I'm unfazed by his line and press for a better answer.
"Women, once I sleep with them, they end up kicking my ass," he explains. "Here you can talk to pretty girls without all that."
The men move to a nearby table, where Barbie cuddles up to Giovanni. At this point, I realize my job is not that different from hers — aside from the whole clothing thing. We're both giving them attention.
She's tipsy but coherent. "I'm a mommy," she tells me. "Us mommies, we are only here to make things better for our children."
Her daughters, ages six and eight, live with her father during the week while she works, she says. She crashes at a cheap motel nearby.
"I'm a feminist," Barbie says from Giovanni's lap. "Dancers are like, 'Okay, you want to be a male chauvinist pig? Well, I'm a feminist pig.' It's not degrading to us. It comes down to business."
The third guy in the group, a 28-year-old who talks quickly and belches loudly, sits nearby. His eyes dart around the nearly empty room. The only other customer is a lawyer on his lunch break; he has his back to the rowdy crew and plays video poker as his plate of chicken parm cools.
"It doesn't matter what a girl's [breast] size is, right?" Barbie asks, turning to the 28-year-old.
"I'm an ass man," he says.
She stands, back arched, and wiggles her round tush near his face. "Big asses?"
"Big asses but no cankles," he says gravely.
She titters, doubling over, ponytail dropping to one side. "What are cankles?"
"When there's no difference between the calves and the ankles," he says.
Barbie turns to me. "Do you want to get onstage?"
"No, no, no," I demur. "I'm shy."
"You don't have to dance. Just see what it's like."
She grabs my wrist, pen still in hand, and leads me to the purple and green neon-lit plastic steps to the elevated stage. I reluctantly shuffle up.
Barbie places my right hand on the pole and points to the mirror behind the bar, where liquor bottles are lined in a target-ready row. "Look at yourself in the mirror," she instructs. "Shake your booty a bit."
I muster a stifled wiggle. From below, Giovanni extends his arms and graciously catcalls, "Whoo!"
"Now, to the mirror on this side," she says, pointing to the back. I see myself in nerdy glasses and conservative black pants, next to her voluptuous body in black heels. Again, I do my PG-rated shake. She beams, seemingly glad I tried. "See, that makes you feel good, right?"
Indeed, I'm smiling. I start to understand how she can do it. She dances for herself, and I begin to recognize that far-off gaze into the mirror I've seen on the faces of so many day strippers.
Kamren has a few minutes before her next dance at the Pink Pony. She nibbles on a plate of pineapple collected from the buffet. More dancers than customers seem to graze on the free food.
She's been in Miami only a few weeks, residing a cheap cab ride from work. She danced herself to the Doral club from Mays Landing, New Jersey, a town of less than 3,000, which she left with four suitcases and a broken heart. Her dance career began two years ago in Atlantic City. She is self-taught on the pole and says she studied ballet, tap, and jazz at Atlantic Cape Community College.
Kamren pledges to put on a show every time she dances, even if it's not rewarded by the customers.
"Guys, they will watch you and be astounded, but they won't pay for it," she says. "The most common compliment I get anymore is, 'Wow, you have a pretty pussy.'"
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She hated men, she says, even before she got into stripping, after a relationship rife with betrayal. Through dancing, she has gained confidence.
"There's nothing I can't do now," she asserts. "I can walk up to just about anybody or stand in the middle of the stage and say whatever I want and not need to be like, 'Imagine the crowd is naked.' I'm standing here naked. Who gives a shit!"
If men are willing to dole out dollars on their lunch breaks, she's willing to take them. "I dance because I enjoy it, not because you're watching me."
But, sitting before me, Kamren has an expression as glum as the one she wears onstage. She gathers her long, wavy hair with her hand and sweeps it down her back. Legs crossed, she flits a high-heeled foot like she's waiting for the next Greyhound bus out.